Qissa – the Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India/Germany/France/Netherlands 2013)

Irrfan Khan as the proud Umber Singh celebrating with his son

Like Gurinder Chadha, the co-writer and director of Qissa, Anup Singh, was born in East Africa into a family which had originally had its home in Rawalpindi in Northern Punjab before Indian Partition in 1947. Unlike Chadha he attended university in Bombay and then FTII in Pune for his film school. His approach to a film about Partition might therefore be expected to be different to Viceroy’s House, but also to have a personal dimension. Qissa is a co-production with a mixed crew and creative inputs from Europe and India. The film was shot in (Indian) Punjab after a long search for locations.

Introducing his film at HOME during the Indian Partition weekend, Anup Singh told us that ‘qissa‘ means a ‘tale’ – the kind of story that might be told in a community setting. He also suggested that many such tales involved lovers from different sides of a barrier such as a river. These stories would then involve various forms of ‘crossings’ or ‘transgressions’ as the lovers attempt to meet. Cue a very different kind of ‘Partition’ story.

Anup Singh working with Irrfan Khan and Tillotama Shome

The film is dominated by the central performance given by Irrfan Khan as Umber, the head of a Punjabi family whose village has been attacked at the time of Partition in 1947. It’s a tribute to both the director and the other excellent actors in the cast that this powerful central performance doesn’t derail the narrative as a whole. After committing an act of revenge, Umber moves his family from what has become ‘Pakistani Punjab’ to ‘Indian Punjab’ and begins a new life working in forestry. At the moment his village was being attacked, Umber’s wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) was giving birth to the couple’s third daughter. When, a few years later, a fourth child is born, Umber decides that this is his son and he proceeds over the next few years to treat ‘Kanwar’ as a warrior Sikh who will hunt and grow strong. He ignores the evidence that this is his fourth daughter, not his son. In the second half of the film an incident pushes Kanwar (now played by Tillotama Shome) into a marriage prescribed by local custom. Something has to give as Kanwar moves to live with Neeli (Rasika Dugal).

Kanwar and Neeli together

This second half of the film, as the title suggests, moves into the realm of a form of ‘magic realism’. The whole film is constructed so carefully, with close attention to details of the mise en scène, that the shift does not seem abrupt but instead seems to develop naturally. The narrative resolution then returns us to the opening shots of the film so that the whole narrative seems like a dream (or a nightmare) – and one that will return. A recurring motif is the well in the courtyard of each of the two houses that the family occupies. In the Q&A, Anup Singh told us that his grandfather had told him that in the terror experienced in the moment of Partition, many women in the Punjab had hidden in wells. In one scene in the film the young Kanwar, having watched his/her father washing, is lowered down the well in the bucket with sunshine penetrating the lower reaches of the well. At other points in the film, the dominant component of the image seems to be a mirror, an open window or doorway, a shaft of sunlight or the reflecting surface of a pool of water. It’s not difficult to recognise the metaphor for the trauma of Partition, although it is presented, very beautifully, in these symbolic images – and is open to interpretation of what it actually means for the individuals concerned.

Tisca Chopra as Mehar

It was only after the screening that I fully appreciated that the crossing of the river and the journey to a new location forced on the family by Partition is an echo of Ritwik Ghatak’s thematic concerns in his Bengali films. But the ‘absence’ in Anup Singh’s film is the central symbol of the train which seems to appear in every other Partition film narrative that I can remember and is clearly present in Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star – which was screened in Manchester immediately before Qissa.

As far as I am aware, Qissa was not released in the UK, but has appeared in one of Channel 4’s seasons of Indian films. This Punjabi language film was released in cinemas in its four co-production countries. The curator of the Partition Weekend, Andy Willis, told us beforehand that when he had started to think about the films to show, Qissa had been the film he knew must be included. I’m glad he gave us this opportunity to see this fine film. Here’s a trailer for a Dutch release (with English subtitles):

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One comment

  1. shabanah fazal

    Agree – there is so much to love and admire in this fascinating film, which is still puzzling me even after a second viewing: the haunting music, and most of all the psychological complexities and ironies of the ‘gender switch’. I watched it on YouTube (no subtitles despite the claim) and it was a pleasure to see an independent Indian film in Punjabi on a serious issue with actors speaking the language in an understated, dignified manner (unlike the clown roles Bollywood usually assigns to Punjabis). Anup Singh says initially he could only get financing in India if he agreed to make it in Hindi – so all credit to him for fighting hard for Punjabi.
    Despite all that, I found it ultimately unsatisfying. I watched it again to check my understanding of the second half but it actually just confirmed those mixed feelings. All I knew before the first viewing was that it was about Partition, but almost forgot that as I became more absorbed in the gender issues arising from the central narrative about Kanwar. Before the second viewing I read your review and watched director and cast interviews, which only confirmed my feeling that something was missing or had been silenced. Although he clearly does talk about patriarchy in India, it bothers me that he had far more to say about Partition – and divisions of all kinds caused by it – almost appearing to imply that’s what destroyed the women in this story, rather than systemic injustice preceding it. I don’t think he does actually go that far (the cyclical structure could suggest something more timeless) but I think that having set up an important and much needed narrative of resistance through the character of Neeli, Singh fails to detonate this and instead quietly defuses it in the magical realist section.
    Yes, it’s ‘the Tale of a Lonely Ghost’, and I’m sure he means the title to be ambiguous – perhaps the story of any of the women, not just Umber – but I don’t get the feeling he’s anything like as interested in their fates. I kept thinking of the direction another director – most likely female – might have taken the relationship between Neeli and Kanwar – and remembered what Deepa Mehta does with the similarly sisterly relationship of her two female leads in Fire. I’m not arguing Singh should have made a different film, just trying to explain my feelings of disquiet without giving away key scenes at the end that truly depressed me. I do like your point about the missing train, given that the film makes so much of silences – whether represented by ghosts or wells that hide the bodies of so many (mostly female) victims of Partition – and wonder if this film, however beautifully crafted and complex, is in the end another kind of silencing. Still puzzling . . .

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